Phoenix Day Trip: Desert Jeep Tours

Riding a jeep driven by Elena Bibbo is a little bit like a theme park ride, and a little like how the settlers felt coming west on a covered wagon. This jeep wasn’t meant to ride the tame paved roads. No, this jeep and its driver thrive on the desert trails and washes that don’t look like a road to the rest of us at all.

We could throw on a day pack and head out with our water bottles and hiking boots to experience the real Sonoran Desert. But most of us won’t get as far as this desert tour bus can take you. Plus, the danger of getting lost keeps many a city folk away from the real backcountry, where you can’t see a house or a high rise in any direction.

Elena is a "cowboy guide" for Wayward Wind Tours, a jeep tour company in the Phoenix area. She parks her jeep at her home in New River, which is minutes away from the desert backcountry. She also takes her riders out to the State Trust Land near Scottsdale, catering to the resort guests looking for a little adventure.

We get people from all over the world in our jeeps," she says. "Sometimes people think that they are coming to see the Sahara, with sand dunes. They have no idea how much is in our deserts."

Well, we Arizonans know better than that. We can also ignore the cowboy attire (we see people dressed like that at the shopping malls) and the pistol she wears at her side ("one of the reasons I do it is because I can," she says). But the truth remains that Elena can walk intellectual circles around most of our knowledge of desert life, and that’s what makes these tours an adventure for those of us who’ve been living with cacti for at least a few years now.

She stops for short hikes, view appreciation stops and water breaks, pointing out the tiniest of detail that the rest of us might miss. "Want to see the nastiest plant in the desert?" she asks, not really waiting for an answer. She heads over to an ominous cactus, the Jumping Cholla (Pronounced choya to those of us new to Arizona), and uses her walking stick to break off a piece. "These have the most needles per square inch than any cactus in the desert." She pulls out a hemostat to pick up the piece and uses a knife to open it. Without the needles, she says, the inside of the Cholla feels like a kiwi, and tastes like a bland green bean. The Indians used to burn the needles off, and they taught the settlers how to eat the desert vegetable, potentially saving them from developing rickets, scurvy and dysentery, the prevalent diseases of the time often caused by poor diets.

But, back to the jeep and on to the next interesting site. The rocky trails are bumpy, and even though the seats are well padded, riders not wearing seatbelts are catching some air in between rocks that the jeep seems to traverse with ease. Elena stops several times to point out javelina or bobcat tracks. She points out the Jojoba plant, sometimes used as an ingredient in shampoos and the "Mormon Tea," a plant used by early settlers thinking it was a cure for Venereal Disease and colds. Every 20 yards yielded another interesting desert or Native American story. Tourists and locals alike keep an eye out for the big prize: a glimpse of a rattler sunning itself near (or on) the trail.

At the end of a trail, Elena leads her charges up a small hill with gorgeous views of the surrounding Arizona desert mountains. The wind starts to pick up, and it rustles the trees and the saguaro with a sound that many city-folk never hear. "We might be on sacred ground here," she says referring to the evidence of Native American visitation in the form of petroglyphs, and the White Sage plant the some Native Americans believe would drive out evil spirits. Several boulders in the area are covered with designs of people and animals, and the spiral designs often found in area petroglyphs. Unfortunately, next to the designs are ones made by a more recent generation of American that had no interest in preserving a remnant of Native Americans. Other vandals have tried to break the boulders apart to take the petroglyphs home.

As much as civilization tries to encroach upon the Sonoran Desert, it is amazing to find a treasure so close to civilization. The North Phoenix communities are a simple stone’s throw from the masterpiece of the desert and we shouldn’t waste an opportunity to explore its finery.